Legislation and Government Policy

Chief of Defence Staff: A Big Bang Reform or just another Office

Ishan Kumar

The defence establishment should rise above inter service rivalries and welcome the forthcoming changes in national interest.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced on the occasion of Independence Day that that his government would create the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). It ruffled a many feathers in the power corridors of Delhi as the decision to create this post has been pending for two decades now. Following the PM’s announcement, the Defence ministry set up a high-powered committee under National Security Advisor Ajit Doval to work out the role, charter and the modalities of the post of CDS. As the name suggests, the CDS would be the government’s single point military advisor and would be above the service chiefs of the three wings of the military. Though the creation of the much awaited post is being seen as a move to sharpen coordination in the armed forces, much of it depends on the powers accorded to the CDS and the chemistry he establishes with the political executive, bureaucracy and the individual armed forces.

Why is the CDS required?

It is a well known fact that modern warfare is not the exclusive domain of any particular wing of the military. Future wars are going to be short intense affairs where all organs of the state are likely to be employed simultaneously. Hence, there is a need to streamline and reconcile differences among the army, air force and navy to foster coordination in training, planning and execution of military operations. In the current dispensation, the defence secretary is the administrative head of the Ministry of Defence. He is the principal adviser to the defence minister on all matters of policy and administration within the Ministry of Defence. However, his authority and control is binding only on the civilian staff in the ministry and not on the uniformed personnel. Also, the defence secretary has no say in the operational matters of the armed forces. Thus, the idea behind creating the post of CDS is aimed at ensuring jointness in the armed forces and defence ministry. Also, the defence secretary is a senior IAS officer who has generally served in different departments at the state government or at the central government. Thus, he is a generalist and not a specialist. A generalist should definitely not be entrusted with giving advice to the political executive on matters relating to a crucial ministry like defence. This should strictly be the domain of the CDS. In the past few decades, India had suffered huge losses due to these inherent flaws plaguing quick decision making in the defence establishment.  An intense inter-service rivalry was witnessed during the operations of Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka between 1987 and 1991. A repeat of this atrocious coordination took place during the Indo-Pak Kargil War in 1999. The Air force officially entered the war on 25th May, 22 days after the conflict turned into a full-blown war. It is high time that the forces got over this fragmented approach by creating a professional body  of the highest standing in the form of CDS to facilitate jointmanship.

Why has the government not appointed a CDS yet?

The creation of the post of CDS was recommended by the Group of Ministers in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led government that was tasked with studying the proposals of the Kargil Review Committee (KRC). The proposal to appoint a CDS was cleared by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) on the recommendation of the Group of Ministers. However; the post did not see the light of day. The proposal was not backed by the political class, the bureaucracy and the three services. There were apprehensions within the political executive that an extremely powerful military officer like CDS could lead to a military coup. The bureaucracy feared that the appointment of CDS might adversely affect the stranglehold of the Defence Secretary, an IAS officer over the Ministry Of Defence. The Service Chiefs were wary of the fact that CDS would become the de facto head of all the services which could lead to dilution of their own powers over their individual services. Also the air force and navy felt that the government would appoint only an army officer as the CDS. Thus, the proposal to appoint a CDS couldn’t materialize.

Who at present is the main military advisor to the government?

National Security Advisor (NSA), who heads the Strategic Planning Group (SPG) and the Defence Planning Committee (DPC), advises the PM on external and internal threats. The SPG, which also includes the three service chief as its members, is the fulcrum for inter-ministerial coordination and integration of inputs in forming national security policies. Till date, all the NSAs are retired officers from the IFS or IPS. The NSA doesn’t possess the military acumen to advise the government on external threats. It would be naïve to expect an NSA, who is an ex IPS Officer, to advise the political executive on complex defense matters, when he himself has dealt with internal security throughout his service. On the other hand, one already possesses a military experience of over four decades by the time one becomes a service chief. Hence a CDS would be in a better position than the NSA to advise the government on intricate and complex matters of defence.

How does CDS function in other countries?

All the P-5 countries have single point military advisor to the government.

In the UK, there exists a post of CDS, who is the principal military advisor to the Prime Minister and Defence Secretary. He is also the professional head of the armed forces in the UK. The chain of command for planning and conduct of military operations flows from the Cabinet and the secretary of State to CDS, and from him to down to operational commanders at various levels. Unlike in India, the service headquarters and the military department in UK are integrated to enhance efficiency and prevent duplication of efforts. The Principal Under Secretary (PUS) is the senior most civil servant in the ministry of defence and exercises control over the civilian staff in the ministry. The CDS and PUS share responsibility for much of the defence department’s business and reflect the inescapable duality of the civil and military aspects of defence in a democracy. Hence, there is no clash between the CDS and PUS.

In the US, the chairman of the Joint Chief Of Staff (CJCS) is the principal military advisor to the President and Defence Secretary. Although CJCS is the highest ranked military officer in the US, he does not have any command authority over the armed forces. The command authority over their respective services is exercised by the chiefs of army, air force and the navy respectively.

Reforming the existing system

The creation of the post of CDS would usher in a new era of defence reforms. It would have an impact on the military-political-bureaucracy relationship. Ideally, the CDS should become a part of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), India’s highest decision making body on national security. This would ensure that crucial decisions related to military can be taken on a war footing. The government also needs to ensure that the powers of the CDS and the NSA are clearly defined to prevent turf wars between the two. The NSA should continue to head the Strategic Planning Group (SPG).However, the responsibility to head the crucial Defence Planning Committee (DPC), which was earlier under the control of the NSA should be given to the CDS. This would ensure that there is no clash for supremacy between the two. Also, necessary changes should be made in the warrant of precedence to accommodate the CDS and ensure that the hierarchy is followed to establish accountability.


The creation of the post of CDS is a significant decision by the government which would lead to a series of changes in the defence apparatus. The defence establishment should rise above inter service rivalries and welcome the forthcoming changes in national interest. The reform couldn’t have come at a better time as synergy among the forces is necessary to tackle the threats posed by increasing hostility in the neighbourhood.

The Author is a second year student at  the Gujarat National Law University, Gandhinagar.